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April 1, 2010

UCLA still working on taking next step

Nobody said it was going to be quick and painless.

When UCLA hired Rick Neuheisel, he took over a team that had had mediocre quarterback play, struggled to run the ball and couldn't protect the passer. Three years later, the Bruins' quarterback play has remained mediocre, the running game continues to sputter and pass protection still is an issue.

But there have been signs of progress. Last season, the passing game was more productive than it had been in the previous three seasons and the offensive line allowed fewer than 30 sacks (29) for the first time since '06. While the quarterback play wasn't outstanding, redshirt freshman Kevin Prince played well enough to at least provide reason for encouragement.

With Prince and four line starters returning, the offense will look to continue making progress this spring. Unfortunately, some significant rebuilding needs to be done at defensive tackle and linebacker.

Here's a look at the Bruins as they open spring drills.

UCLA AT-A-GLANCE
QB Kevin Prince will look to build on the progress he made last season this spring.
THE BASICS
Coach: Rick Neuheisel
Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-6 in the Pac-10. Beat Temple 30-21 in the EagleBank Bowl.
Spring dates: April 1-April 24.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (7): G/T Jeff Baca, WR Taylor Embree, TB Johnathan Franklin, T Mike Harris, C Kai Maiava, QB Kevin Prince, G Eddie Williams.
Defense (5): LB Akeem Ayers, SS Tony Dye, E Datone Jones, FS Rahim Moore, CB Sheldon Price.
Special teams (2): K Kai Forbath, P Jeff Locke.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

No team should be better than UCLA in the kicking game. Forbath, the 2009 Groza Award recipient, was 28-of-31 on field-goal attempts, with all three misses from at least 51 yards. Forbath he has converted nine from at least 50 yards in his career. Locke earned second-team All-Pac 10 recognition after averaging 46.3 yards per punt and was a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award. In addition, junior WR Josh Smith - a transfer from Colorado - is eligible after sitting out a year. In 2008, Smith set a Colorado record with 50 kickoff returns for 1,276 yards. The Bruins' receivers and defensive backs also are strong. Embree and Nelson Rosario each had more than 40 receptions last year. Three starters return in the secondary, and Moore led the nation with 10 interceptions.

HELP IS NEEDED

Unless it shows otherwise this spring, the defense could be soft up the middle. All-conference DT Brian Price's decision to enter the NFL draft left UCLA without much experience there. Senior David Carter is the most experienced tackle, but he has managed just 25 tackles and three sacks in his first three seasons combined. Junior Nate Chandler is moving to tackle after previously playing at tight end and on the offensive line. The Bruins also must find a replacement for MLB Reggie Carter, who led them in tackles in each of the previous two seasons.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

WR Randall Carroll: A four-star prospect, Carroll made 10 appearances and three receptions as a true freshman last season. He has good hands and excellent speed. He should have a much larger role in the offense this season.

TE Joseph Fauria: A transfer from Notre Dame, Fauria is a huge target at 6 feet 7 and 259 pounds. He was a four-star prospect by Rivals.com in '08, but he played in only three games for the Irish. After sitting out a year, he figures to contribute for the Bruins.

CB Aaron Hester: The Bruins need a replacement for departed All-American Al Verner, and Hester may be it. Last spring, Hester - a sophomore - earned a spot in the starting lineup but fractured his right leg in the season opener. Now recovered, Hester could get back in the starting lineup if there are no lingering effects from the injury.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

QB Kevin Prince: He did some impressive things last season. Prince became just the second UCLA freshman to pass for more than 300 yards three times, and he posted the second-most completions and passing yards for a UCLA freshman. But completing 56 percent of his attempts for 2,050 yards isn't good enough. He has to continue to improve, especially with touted prospects Richard Brehaut and Nick Crissman poised to make a challenge for the starting job.

THE BUZZ

The loss of three first-team all-league defenders (Price, Carter and Verner) could lead to some problems, but discussions around Westwood continue to center on the offense. The receivers are good and the running backs are getting better. But until the quarterbacks and offensive line improve, the Bruins will have difficulty bettering last season's 7-6 finish. UCLA is making strides in both areas, but fans have been hearing that for three years. Now is the time for the Bruins to finally solve those problems, especially with that team across town appearing vulnerable.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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